by ZIZUN ZHOU, ’23
The recent demonstrations in Hong Kong once again reminded the world that the one country, two systems principle stands as one of the most delicate innovations in the political history of modern China. The principle is based on the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration over Hong Kong, which enabled the peaceful return of the former British colony to China as represented by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As a part of the agreement, the PRC government assured that Hong Kong shall “enjoy a high degree of autonomy” and that its “capitalist system and life-style shall remain unchanged for 50 years” following the city’s handover to the PRC in 1997. The agreement deliberately left the question of Hong Kong’s eventual political fate after 2047 unanswered in order to evade the political controversy surrounding the appropriateness and methodology of integrating one of the most capitalist and westernized cities in China into the PRC’s socialist system. More than three decades after the issuance of the joint declaration, there are still diverging perspectives on this unresolved problem. Some argue that Hong Kongers have developed into a “stateless nation”, which means that any attempt to forcefully integrate Hong Kong into Beijing’s sociopolitical system would be met with mass resistance. Meanwhile, others suggest that Beijing, with total control over the coercive force needed to overcome opposition in Hong Kong, will only accommodate the city’s autonomy insofar as it believes that doing so will help Hong Kongers “get used to the Chinese political system”. Beijing for its part has remained flexible by publicly acknowledging its intention to let Hong Kong’s system remain unchanged before 2047 and the possibility of letting it remain unchanged after 2047.
Despite these diverging perspectives, it is possible to show that Hong Kong’s current political trajectory, as predicted by its past and present realities, leads to a few possible outcomes for the city both in the short-term and the long-term. To understand this trajectory, one must first understand the city’s localist sentiments, which are rooted in history and have intensified in recent years. Secondly, one must analyze the economic and political power dynamics between Hong Kong and Beijing; this analysis dispels the myth of the former’s strong economic leverage over the latter and demonstrates the two sides’ political interdependence. The political and economic forces revealed by these discussions lead to the conclusion that Hong Kong’s best bet for balancing its aspirations for stability, prosperity, and autonomy lies in improving communication and establishing mutual confidence with Beijing. A promising way to realize this solution would be a political leader in Hong Kong who can act as an intermediary between the people of Hong Kong and the authorities in Beijing, and whose existence would likely require an expansion of democratic participation in Hong Kong.
Any meaningful analysis of Hong Kong’s present political quagmire and political trajectory must start with an understanding of how its political localism developed. Following the victory of the communists in the Chinese Civil War on the mainland, Hong Kong was flooded with refugees from mainland China who increased the city’s population dramatically. The city continued to be bombarded with refugees even after strict border controls were instituted, and by the early 1960s their numbers exceeded well over a million. It was this generation of immigrants who fled from communism that gave birth to today’s Hong Kongers and their parents. These descendants may well have inherited the older generation’s fear of Red China, especially after witnessing the violence involved in Hong Kong’s 1967 leftist riots and Beijing’s crackdown on the 1989 protests across the PRC. It is therefore evident that Hong Kongers’ fear of China’s communist government is not a new phenomenon, but rather one rooted in decades of history. Furthermore, because of this long history of distrust, Hong Kongers naturally see their liberal political institutions as superior to those established by the Communist Party of China (CPC) in the PRC insofar as justice and freedom are concerned.
The political localism of Hong Kong is also supported by a strong cultural localism. Although Hong Kong is comprised of mainly ethnic Han Chinese, similar to most cities in mainland China, its distinct history has led to a unique cultural identity among its populace. During most of Britain’s colonial rule, the city’s native residents were second-class citizens to the British. Nonetheless, Hong Kong’s residents lived under British intellectual and cultural influence for over a century. As a result, the city has developed a fusion culture that is not only distinct from that of other parts of mainland China, but also from that of Taiwan. Hong Kong is the only city in China that practices common law and uses English as an official language. English has even embedded itself in the local Chinese dialect. The former leads to a distinct judicial culture while the latter exposes citizens to the language of Western liberalism. Also, except for a short period of Japanese occupation, Hong Kong was spared most of the upheaval and turmoil in China during the twentieth century. British control prevented Hong Kong from being subjected to the nationalist projects undertaken by the Kuomintang government and the CPC government. Due to its unique course of history characterized by British cultural assimilation, Hong Kong’s culture is not quite the same as the Chinese culture of the Republic of China (Taiwan), and certainly not that of the post-Cultural Revolution PRC. After Hong Kong’s reincorporation into China under the PRC, Hong Kongers preserved their fusion culture. It is this culture that they guard so jealously today against what they see as Beijing’s incursions.
The above factors give rise to the sharp political and to a lesser extent cultural divide between Hong Kong and the rest of mainland China under the CPC’s rule. This divide may not necessarily be strong enough to constitute a form of Hong Kong nationalism: so far, there does not seem to be any evidence showing that a majority of Hong Kongers reject their Chinese identity. The divide does, however, explain the presence of intense localist sentiments among many Hong Kongers who have come to view Beijing as an unwelcomed outsider. Due to these sentiments, any step Beijing takes vis-à-vis Hong Kong that violates Hong Kongers’ unique identity, such as the recent extradition bill, would understandably lead to considerable public backlash on the part of Hong Kong’s populace.
While Hong Kong’s localism explains many Hong Kongers’ defiance towards Beijing’s policies, other economic and political factors explain Beijing’s tolerance towards this defiance. A popular but often misleading view on the relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing focuses on the economic importance of the former for the latter, with some going as far as to argue that Hong Kong’s main leverage over Beijing is economic. This argument might have been true around the turn of the millennium, but not so much today. Hong Kong played a crucial role in the early stages of the PRC’s economic rise by giving it access to physical capital and financial capital from the West. Hong Kong not only acted as a pivot for foreign direct investment (FDI) in China from other market economies, but also provided the bulk of FDI coming into China. Between 1992 and 2014, nearly half of all foreign direct investment entering mainland China came through Hong Kong. Unfamiliarity with communist China and distrust of its legal and economic system discouraged early foreign investors, which explains why utilization of foreign capital was actually fairly low during the first decade of China’s economic reforms. Without Hong Kong, whose ethnic Chinese investors took the lead in attracting foreign capital to China, the progress of China’s economic reforms would probably have been delayed.
However, those today who tout the fact that most of the FDI going into the PRC continues to be channeled through Hong Kong seem to miss the real significance of FDI for Beijing. The weight of FDI as a part of China’s total gross domestic product has fallen from just above 6% in 1993 to around 1.5% in 2018, showing the diminishing importance of FDI (including those channeled through Hong Kong) to the Chinese economy. As China transitions from an export-oriented economy to a consumption-driven economy and opens up its domestic market as a part of its national strategy, Hong Kong’s role in providing China with FDI will also diminish. Even though Hong Kong is a preferred public offering location for many Chinese companies trying to access international markets, this does not imply that these companies depend exclusively on the city to expand abroad. Thus, Alibaba’s listing in Hong Kong, which came long after its listing in New York, does not show anything about mainland China’s financial dependence on Hong Kong as some have claimed.
The importance of international trade to China has also been as much about importing more productive physical capital as about importing advanced industrial technology. While Hong Kong played an important role in the former by channeling FDI into the PRC, most of the PRC’s technology imports during the 1980s and 1990s years were made directly from OECD countries rather than acquired through FDI. Hong Kong has played a small role in this type of trade, and the FDI it brought into mainland China was largely directed towards labor-intensive and low-end industries. Today, the PRC’s demand for advanced foreign technology is satisfied through demanding technology transfers from foreign companies in exchange for access to the country’s market, as well as through targeted Chinese FDI and business acquisitions in developed countries aimed at technologically advanced assets. These specifics indicate that the PRC’s physical economy clearly does not depend on Hong Kong.
Some commentators who concede to the above still assert the irreplaceability of Hong Kong as a financial hub for China. It is true that Hong Kong punches above its weight in terms of its global financial influence like no other Chinese city and that Hong Kong’s particular legal, financial, and monetary systems make it the ideal city for funneling money in and out of China. Nonetheless, it is still quite misleading to claim that Hong Kong has the capacity to blackmail Beijing on the basis of its financial power. One should keep in mind that China’s financial reliance on Hong Kong has also decreased substantially over time. Beijing never had any intention of allowing Hong Kong to act as a financial choke point for the Chinese economy in the long run. For this reason, the PRC government has been actively building up cities rivaling Hong Kong such as Shanghai and Shenzhen, which now rank second and fourth respectively in the Asia-Pacific region in terms of their stock exchange market capitalizations, with Hong Kong in third place. This development has been noted by foreign observers: the chairman of the London Stock Exchange made it clear to Hong Kong’s financial elites that Shanghai is now considered the “preferred and direct channel to access the many opportunities with China”. Those who boast of Hong Kong’s legal transparency in comparison to the rest of the PRC should note that Beijing is very much willing to adjust its legal system to attract foreign investment as long as doing so does not hinder the overall rule of the CPC. Beijing’s decision to make Shenzhen a “pioneering exemplar” with authorization to experiment with further legal and commercial reforms should serve as a reminder to all that Hong Kong’s legal advantage is not absolute. In any case, there is also a key distinction between preference and absolute reliance. Indeed, the importance of mainland China’s vast market for many multinational corporations is so great that it is untenable for them to stop investing in the PRC simply due to the absence of Hong Kong’s attractive institutions.
These considerations show that although Hong Kong’s economic importance makes it a part of Beijing’s overall political calculus, Hong Kong’s present economic role alone cannot compellingly explain why Beijing has refrained from direct interference in the recent demonstrations. Granted, military intervention is almost certainly detrimental to investor confidence in Hong Kong and China as a whole, but prolonged unrest in the city could lead to the same undesirable outcome. In general, one can see that economic concerns do not provide a sound explanation for why the PRC government has not coerced the Hong Kong government to embrace harsher measures against the recent demonstrations. Those who contend that Hong Kongers’ confidence in defying Beijing lies in Hong Kong’s economic leverage mislead their audience by encouraging confrontation based on false hopes.
In contrast to the economic argument, a view emphasizing Hong Kong’s political implications for China provides much more insight into China’s restraint over Hong Kong. Since the beginning of the Chinese Civil War if not earlier, the CPC had always carried two different ideologies, nationalism and communism, on its shoulders. These two ideologies would come to justify the legitimacy of the CPC’s rule in China, which is why Mao Zedong emphasized the victory of the CPC in the Chinese Civil War as a victory of Chinese nationalism rather than simply that of communism. In order to uphold the banner of Chinese nationalism, Beijing must never cease to defend any challenges to the unity of China’s historical territorial possessions, including Hong Kong. Even prior to the city’s handover to the PRC, the country’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping made it very clear to the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that Beijing was willing to reclaim Hong Kong using force if necessary, for the city was even more politically important for the Chinese leadership than Taiwan insofar as it represented the last remnant of colonial humiliation of China under foreign powers.
Yet Hong Kong has been a double-edged sword for Beijing. The return of Hong Kong to China furnished the CPC’s nationalist credentials, but it also handed the PRC leadership a city whose governance demands an enormous amount of political dexterity in balancing the competing goals of subduing pro-independence forces and maintaining the credibility of the One Country, Two Systems policy. Beijing has been attaining this first goal indirectly through measures enacted by the Hong Kong’s local government. In recent years, the government of Hong Kong has disqualified candidates and denounced public expressions in support of independence. Beijing would most likely dismiss criticisms of the general clampdown on the pro-independence movement in Hong Kong as a violation of basic rights guaranteed to the city, since Hong Kong independence is a greater political problem for Beijing than these criticisms. Any threat of this independence is in fact a threat to the legitimacy and survival of the leadership.
Even though Beijing’s legitimacy based on nationalism requires it to prevent the forces of independence from gaining traction in Hong Kong, the PRC leadership also has to stand by the promises it made in 1984. Beijing’s demonstration of good faith is not simply motivated by its desire to be perceived positively by other countries or by the people of Hong Kong. Rather, it has to do with the PRC leadership’s national strategy surrounding One Country, Two Systems, to which public relations is only a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The political experiment with One Country, Two Systems is important to the PRC leadership’s goal of Chinese reunification involving Taiwan, a goal so important that it has been enshrined in the preamble of the PRC’s constitution. If Beijing oversteps the limits of One Country, Two Systems by directly intervening in Hong Kong, the policy’s effectiveness and credibility would both be bankrupt. The PRC’s paramount leader Xi Jinping has made it clear that Beijing continues to view One Country, Two Systems as the ideal option for reunification, which indicates that Beijing must take caution to avoid sabotaging the policy. Indeed, Beijing has to simultaneously promote Hong Kong’s economic development and preserve its existing institutions in order to demonstrate the effectiveness of the One Country, Two Systems model.
Beijing must meticulously balance its campaign against Hong Kong’s independence with its objective of maintaining the viability of One Country, Two Systems up to at least 2047, yet after that Hong Kong’s political incompatibility with Beijing would incentivize the latter to gradually politically assimilate the former into the PRC’s authoritarian sociopolitical system. This incompatibility has posed problems for Beijing long before Hong Kong’s incorporation into the PRC. During the Cultural Revolution, many refugees swam across the border into Hong Kong. Their flight from communist China into the embrace of Western capitalism was an embarrassment for the PRC leaders in the eyes of the world. Today, Hong Kong’s localist sentiment incites popular rejection of the CPC’s authority among Hong Kongers by appealing to the city’s unique institutions and values. This kind of civil obedience, which has gone as far as burning the Chinese flag and smearing the Chinese national emblem, is unlikely to be tolerated in the long-run due to its conflict with Beijing’s vision of a unified China. Thus by 2047, when the promised 50-years of One Country, Two Systems come to an end, Beijing would have more room to demand a government in the city that treats political opposition with less tolerance. The establishment of this more authoritarian government would likely need to be a gradual process to avoid provoking immediate and widespread backlash from Hong Kong’s populace.
Beijing is also incentivized to assimilate Hong Kong in the long-run because Hong Kong’s political institutions shield pro-independence forces. If the majority opinion of Hong Kong’s populace shifts in favor of the pro-independence forces, the city’s existing institutions would limit Beijing’s options to respond effectively within Hong Kong’s local political system, thus forcing Beijing to resort to the undesirable option of applying brute force under the command of the national political authority to the local political system. The ideal scenario for Beijing is one where the structure of One Country, Two Systems is preserved with special legal and political provisions that allow Beijing to silence its political rivals in Hong Kong without resorting to direct intervention.
The political dilemma that Beijing faces is one of political strategic interdependence with Hong Kong as a whole. Although Beijing has incentives to avoid using force in Hong Kong, it also has strong reasons to intervene in Hong Kong. On the one hand, Beijing’s need to uphold nationalism means that any independence movement in Hong Kong with signs of success will be crushed. Insofar as the PRC leadership cares about its own political survival, it would not hesitate to nub Hong Kong’s independence at first sight, should such a thing ever even occur, because failure to protect China’s political unity could be suicidal given the current patriotic fervor among the Chinese public. On the other hand, Hong Kong’s current political system accommodates localist and pro-independence movements that could gain the upper hand in the city’s politics if the majority of Hong Kongers demonstrate their desire to break ties with the PRC. While Beijing may wish to assimilate Hong Kong, Hong Kongers have grown accustomed to their institutions and would not easily give up the status quo. Any attempt by Beijing to assimilate Hong Kong would lead to a perceived, if not real erosion of the city’s autonomy, which is not only undesirable for many Hong Kongers, but also for foreign businesses and the credibility of the One Country, Two Systems model. The resulting predicament can be expressed using a payoff matrix:
The Political Payoff Matrix
|Hong Kong \ Beijing||Granting of Autonomy||Intervention|
|Political Placidity||Political status-quo||Hong Kong’s existing political institutions erodes away in the long-run|
|Civil Disobedience||Hong Kong moves towards political independence||Hong Kong and the PRC’s political reputations are damaged; One Country, Two Systems becomes bankrupt|
The strategic interdependence of Beijing and Hong Kong is essentially a non-zero-sum game. Status quo would yield overall political benefits for Beijing and Hong Kong insofar as it would not require either side to concede anything while satisfying the former’s nationalism concerns and the latter’s aspiration for stability and autonomy. However, the status quo does not solve the issues related to socioeconomic development in Hong Kong that fuels political discontent in the city. If these issues remain unresolved, civil disobedience in Hong Kong would most likely recur and aggravate over time. Meanwhile, Beijing cannot risk Hong Kong moving towards independence by constantly tolerating Hong Kong’s civil disobedience. In the long-run, neither party can know for sure how the other party would act, and growing distrust prevents them from influencing one another’s decisions. The Nash equilibrium for both sides is the outcome whereby civil disobedience in Hong Kong is met with direct intervention from Beijing, which would mark the end of Hong Kong’s autonomy and also Beijing’s highly touted One Country, Two Systems policy in the eyes of the world.
Nonetheless, such a pessimistic outcome can be avoided by promoting mutual confidence between Beijing and Hong Kong, thereby allowing them to effectively influence one another’s strategic behaviors. Beijing must respect the aspirations of Hong Kongers for autonomy and self-government. By appreciating the different historical development of Hong Kong, Beijing would resist the urge to impose its own political will on Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Hong Kongers must clearly draw the line between autonomy and independence and accept its role as a part of the PRC. Chinese nationalism is a far more powerful force than Hong Kong’s nativism in that the former can command the full powers of an entire state. Hong Kong’s demonstrators antagonize this force by waving American and British flags during demonstrations and calling for the involvement of other countries in the city’s politics. They are more likely to achieve their aims by framing Hong Kong’s institutions and values as a legitimate competitor to Beijing’s in a contest between two potential systems for China’s political future.
One way to foster mutual confidence between Beijing and the people of Hong Kong would be an intermediary between them, one who can influence both sides and thereby open up communication between them. The role of this intermediary would be so demanding that it would almost certainly have to be a major official, if not the chief executive itself. The intermediary would need nationalist credentials and sufficient political sway in Hong Kong to gain the confidence of the PRC leadership. It would need to have its power base in Hong Kong so that it would advocate for Hong Kong’s autonomy in front of the PRC leadership and have the means to defy the leadership’s efforts to reduce Hong Kong’s autonomy. Within Hong Kong itself, the intermediary would need to be powerful enough to resist the pressure from the city’s elites and thereby pursue greater distributive justice. The intermediary would also have to be capable of coordinating various economic and social policies with Beijing in order to avoid conflicts between local and national development goals. Such a special broker would require a selective electoral process that addresses Beijing’s concerns while simultaneously expanding the democratic participation of Hong Kongers. For example, Beijing might get to screen candidates for chief executive, who would ultimately be elected by Hong Kongers at large. Whatever the solution is, it would have to be based on an expansion of democratic participation in choosing Hong Kong’s chief executive. When the majority of Hong Kongers have more say in the selection of the city’s highest office, they would be less likely to view it as a mere puppet of an overreaching Beijing. If Beijing is trustful of Hong Kongers’ aspirations for autonomy, it could consent to this change.
However, it is very possible that Beijing’s need for strong political security excludes the possibility of any independent political authority in Hong Kong being elected. A fully independent political authority in Hong Kong is also incompatible with the strongly hierarchical structure of the PRC government, which centralizes political authority in the hands of a few leaders in Beijing. This appears to be Beijing’s current stance, since it has repeatedly dismissed calls for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. Indeed, Beijing has attempted to resolve the city’s woes without pursuing political reforms, emphasizing instead the economic reasons for the city’s problems. This course of action supports the view that the PRC leadership is acting out of political confidence, viewing the causes of the current unrest in Hong Kong as mainly economic. However, this approach has two problems. Firstly, it could be overestimating the importance of economics over politics. Beijing must not apply the approach of economic development in exchange for political freedom to Hong Kong without carefully considering the particular historical, cultural, and social circumstances of the city. After all, the assumption that Hong Kongers will give up their political autonomy in exchange for economic development fails to explain why students at two of Hong Kong’s best universities are protesting, noting that these students are not among those left behind in the city’s economic growth.
Secondly, Hong Kong’s current political system based on functional constituencies is disproportionately skewed towards the city’s business elites, who are incentivized to protect their own interests by maintaining the city’s low tax rates and growth-oriented policies. These elites might be willing to make short-term concessions on issues like promoting social welfare, but they would oppose any move by the Hong Kong government to make the structural reforms necessary for comprehensively addressing Hong Kong’s class divide and social woes. Beijing and the city’s local elites have a mutually interdependent relationship, granting them economic and political privileges in exchange for their loyalty. Thus, it would be very difficult to make significant progress in terms of socioeconomic development in the long run without experimenting with greater democratic participation.
So far, Beijing’s approach to Hong Kong appears flexible yet measured, giving temporary concessions to the demonstrators who have been on the streets for months without yielding to their fundamental political demands. Beijing might simply be trying to see how Hong Kong’s conflicts play out, and respond only when the success of the response is guaranteed. This position is not only applicable to Beijing’s short-term view of demonstrations in Hong Kong, but also its long-term plans for the city towards 2047 and beyond. One Country, Two Systems was a bold policy for Beijing from its very beginning because it is a policy based on the separate treatment of nationalism and socialism, which contradicts the very principle of blending the two that the CPC has followed over the years. The price of this policy is that Beijing has to bear with a thorn in its side for many years. Given these concessions, it is reasonable to assume that Beijing wants good results from its bold policy in the form of a politically stable and economically prosperous Hong Kong that identifies with and contributes to the well-being of the PRC, which would ultimately serve as a model for Taiwan.
For Hong Kongers, an accurate understanding of Beijing’s intentions and a clear yet calculated response to Beijing’s policies is essential to the successful preservation of its prosperity and autonomy both in the short-run and in the long-run. Communication and trust between the two sides are essential, and the political status quo allows very little progress to be made in this regard. A political leader mediating between Beijing and Hong Kong’s public, who carries the trust of both sides and political leverage over both of them, would prove to be very helpful to the solution of Hong Kong’s political problems and bring about the most favorable outcome for the city both before and after 2047.
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